The dangers of cultism

By | 2012/12/06

Flat Earth

One of the first and most important lessons I was taught in Philosophy at University was a simple yet profound statement:

Old ideas don’t die; the people who hold them do.

I remember having a slight chuckle about it when it was first said – I immediately pictured a bunch of old men all smoking pipes in a room angrily muttering about how the Earth really is flat.

Ironically of course, there is still a flat Earth society and some people still genuinely believe it. Indeed, on a similar front, surveys as recently as 1999 (yes, 1999, not 1899) have shown that anywhere up to one fifth of the population of the United States still believed the Sun revolves around the Earth.

Different ideas, same crazy.

When we talk about cultism, we normally think of religion in some form. Typically cultism is seen as a non-mainstream religion, or a sect, but the line becomes more nebulous as your levels of agnosticism or atheism increases. A devout Catholic for instance might consider Protestantism as heretical, but save Cultism for Scientology. On the other hand, a firm atheist might barely make any differentiation between all three.

Yet, it’s dangerous to limit talk of “cultism” to just religion. It’s important to recognise that in any field, or any topic, or any situation, as soon as you have the possibility of strong polarisation between views, you have the risk of cultism.

Australia has a myriad of cults totally unrelated to religion – football codes and cars immediately spring to mind. Having grown up in New South Wales, and now living in Victoria, the level of animosity some people in both states have towards the primary football codes of those states (Rugby League and AFL respectively) is a definite example of cultism. Similarly, the Holden vs Ford rivalry in some situations has to be seen to be believed. The passion is vehement; the animosity, vitriolic.

IT sees some of the worst forms of cultism, too. Microsoft vs Apple, or Android vs Apple immediately spring to mind. At the extremities there’s no logic involved, just naked incandescent, hatred. On both sides.

Lately it’s become equally apparent to me that politics – even within a democracy – is the new playing field for cultism, and that’s on the rise. The extreme conservatives on the right who border on fascism and fundamentally reject science are easy to spot to many, yet just as extreme are some radicals that can be found in the fringe left groups, too – socialism, marxism, communism.

In every situation you can have people who are passionate about a topic or a point of view who are not cultists. You can have strong conservatives who aren’t extreme; you can have socialists who aren’t extreme. You can have Apple aficionados and Windows adherents who are all passionate about what they believe in, but don’t fall into cultism.

There are now over 7 billion people living on this planet. Put just 5 people in a room and ask them to discuss all their interests and their passions – the chances there’ll be something they find they can vehemently disagree on is likely quite high.

So the notion of getting all 7 billion of us (and rising) to agree on anything is possibly insanity at its best.

When I was seeing a psychologist, he suggested that one way you can imagine your different emotions, or moods, or reactions, is to think of a car full of kids plus one adult. The adult is you, the person who should be in control. The kids are all the raw emotions and reactions. There’ll be an angry kid, there’ll be a sad kid, there’ll be a happy kid, and a bunch of other kids – but they’re all kids. They can’t drive the car.

By extension it could be argued that the same applies in any other situation where there’s polarised views: the extremities – the raw emotions, if you will, can’t drive the car. Their voices contribute to the whole, but a more moderate view is likely the ‘adult’ driver. So in that IT car there may be an Android Kid and an iOS kid screaming “Fanboy!” at each other incessantly, but there’ll be other kids who are just using the devices while the adult drives. Equally, in the political car there may be a rabid conservative and rabid socialist tearing at each other, but the adult in charge has to take a more moderate approach to avoid a crash.

One of the most insidious features of cultism is immunity to criticism, constructive or other. If any belief – sport, religious, political, IT, or anything else, becomes so incapable of entertaining criticism, it must be declared a cult.

No matter what form it takes, cultism represents a considerable danger. It locks down the analytical process and bends reality to suit its needs; if allowed to continue long enough, it even has the potential to impact the mental evolution of our species.

A part of being a responsible citizen, I think, is being alert for cultism; not in a “reds under the beds” approach, but most certainly in a wariness to entrenched and seemingly intractable ideas.

When I used to be a manager, I learnt (the hard way, I might add), to never go off half-cocked having heard just one side of the story. Getting to see the big picture, so to speak, is critical in being able to make the correct decision.

We often make the mistake of assuming being a moderate is about conformity. Yet, perhaps the greatest gift moderates can bring to any discussion is the equanimity to listen to a comprehensive spread of ideas and pick out the best parts from the full spectrum.

Cultism can’t do that – opposing views can’t be entertained, and so there’s no chance of a consensual decision. Like it or not, the moderates are the adults in any polarised discussion, and we need to learn to respect that. (Myself included.)

One thought on “The dangers of cultism

  1. Darren

    Preston,
    you are one exceptionally insightful dude.

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